This is my review of En Vieillissant Les Hommes Pleurent (Prix Rtl-lire 2012) by Jean-Luc Seigle.
This is a poignant study of a family living in rural France near Clermont Ferrand in 1961 when France was undergoing a period of rapid change. Fifty-something Albert Chassaing has many reasons for his mid-life crisis. Descended from generations of peasant farmers, he has to work at the Michelin tyre factory to make ends meet. His smallholding is to be swallowed up in “remembrement”, sold off for amalgamation into a larger unit of operation. He is drifting apart from his glamorous much younger wife Suzanne, who seems to be over-friendly with the postman Paul. Whereas Albert clings to the past, Suzanne, an orphan with no roots, embraces modern consumer goods, the latest being the television on which she can watch an interview with beloved son Henri who has gone to fight in Algeria. This only serves to remind Albert of the humiliation of the German occupation of France, and his experiences defending the fortress of Schoenenbourg on the Maginot Line, about which he has remained unnaturally silent, being a man given to bottling up his emotions.
So it is that on the very first page, we learn of Albert’s desire “to finish it all”. How seriously should we take this, as he begins to plan for his end by, for instance, ensuring that the bookish son Gilles whom he loves but cannot really understand, will be well-supported? Will he find the motivation to overcome his “want of courage” to take his own life? Will the frequent moments of humour in the book eventually win out over the bleak undertow?
I am not sure that Seigle has developed the interesting plot as fully as he might have done. It seems a bit of a handicap to be unfamiliar with Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, which bookworm Gilles uses to interpret his family life. There is a fair amount of “telling” in the narration and the final chapter is a didactic piece on the Maginot line which seems awkwardly tacked onto the novel, rather than integrated as a potentially fascinating and relevant part of the story. Despite this, there are some striking passages and thought-provoking observations, such as the scene where Albert revisits the field in which his father, as a robust child, was hitched to the plough in place of the horse which the family could not afford, and made to complete his task under cover of night so that none should see the shame of this. Yet, Albert values the image of his father’s work whereas his own sons have no idea how he spends his time on a production line, locked away indoors.